“Today in Corfu everyone will be given a shopping assignment,” explained Chef Kellie Evans as we nibbled on olive-flavored loukoumi in Oceania Riviera’s Culinary Center. Foraging on this Greek Ionian island whose Old Town dates back to the eighth century B.C. wouldn’t be of the truffle and wild herb variety. Instead, our task was to find local specialties like kumquat liqueur, homemade Greek yogurt and vegetables from the Corfiot Market throughout the 3-hour, chef-led tour that ended, naturally, in a traditional Greek tavern, Rex, the oldest on Corfu.
“Us white coats see everything food first, so we tie in traveling with food and learn what we can about people through cuisine,” Evans explains. In Corfu, for example, you can see the mark Venetians left not only through the architecture, but also with cuisine like the traditional Sunday dinner dish pastitsada, pasta with veal or rooster sauce.
Corfu was the pilot for the Culinary Discovery Tours program that launched two years ago and has expanded to over 50 across the globe, from cannoli-making in Catania, Sicily to 7-course Catalan-themed tastings in Palamos, Spain.
“It started as an enrichment activity that was culinary in nature, but where the real magic happens is when we take passengers off the ship and show them a place they would never have found on their own,” explains Kathryn Kelly, Oceania Cruises’ executive chef and director of culinary enrichment.
“For a lot of people when they’re traveling, even if they’ve traveled to a place many times, it still amazes us that they’re just getting their head around where they are and what the significance of this place is from a culinary or food and wine standpoint, which is really important to make the traveling experience come full circle.”
The tours were born with Kelly setting off from the ship to explore a local market or visit a restaurant and guests wanting to tag along, offering to split cab fare and see the culinary side of the city through her eyes. Kelly still designs each of the tours herself, which take around two years to put together as she spends time scouting locations and getting to know the locals.
“In many cases, we have a list of places we want to go because they’re friends of ours,” she says. “We talk about bringing a small group of people and creating an experience for them.”
Tours cap at 24 guests and are led by a master chef instructor like Evans, in addition to a hand-picked local guide, ensuring passengers not only experience the culinary side of a city, but take in its history as well. After sampling bourdetto, a spicy scorpion fish stew, and baklava-flavored gelato from Papagiorgis, a third-generation pastry shop in the center of Corfu, it’s back on board to make use of the ingredients passengers have been scouting for all day.
Now’s when travelers can connect the dots, taking part in a 90-minute Greek cooking class learning how to weave those ingredients into traditional recipes served up with a healthy spin. Fresh basil and feta find their way into a watermelon, tomato and basil salad, while that thick Greek yogurt is blended with local olive oil, cucumber and mint to form a traditional Grecian mezze dish, tzatziki.
The Culinary Center on board Oceania Cruises’ 1,250-passenger sister ships Riviera and Marina was the first hands-on cooking school at sea with more than two dozen classes ranging from 45 minutes to three hours. Themes center around technique or the region the ship is sailing through, so in Sorrento, for instance, guests have the chance to learn “What Mermaids Know,” with a seafood-based course specializing in techniques from poaching to curing and crafting ceviche. In “La Technique Francaise,” meanwhile, guests take a note from French master chef and executive culinary director Jacques Pepin’s bible, working through the basics of French cuisine.
Of course, your clients won’t have to do all the work when it comes to dining at sea. On board Riviera, they can choose from eight restaurants—plus a 24-hour complimentary room service menu—or go for a private dining experience at Privee, throwing a dinner party for up to 10 around the custom-designed Dakota Jackson marble table.
While most of the options are included in the fare (apart from Privee), your clients can take the culinary experience up a notch at La Reserve by Wine Spectator. Here they’ll work through a 7-course meal that starts with something delicate like a teriyaki bay scallop steaming on river stone or caviar sitting on cream of sea urchin with sommelier-selected wine pairings. And if they’re trying to stay on the lighter side (which on this trip filled with temptation at every turn is tough), there’s always healthy menu options served up by Canyon Ranch cuisine. Fares for a 7-day Mediterranean voyage start at $1,799 pp.
Oceania Cruises: oceaniacruises.com